Last updateFri, 08 May 2020 6pm


Praise Be to “Hail, Caesar!”

Hail CaesarEddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) works at the fictional Capitol Pictures in early 1950s Hollywood as an enforcer of sorts (think Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It or In the Loop). His job keeps him from his family, forces him to deal with petty press problems and leaves him to fix the scandalous personal lives of the actors and directors working under him. Indirectly, it causes him to smoke a lot too, at the moral expense of lying to his wife.

There’s DeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), who has a child out of wedlock and must get married to avoid the ensuing scandal. Then there’s Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), an actor of B-movie proportions working in Western movies who must up his game and act in the film of self-styled studio auteur Lawrence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes)—except he can’t actually act. Then there are the Thacker Sisters, Thora and Thessaly (both played by Tilda Swinton). One sister thinks she covers hard news but only writes gossip, and the other is intent on gossip but actually publishes stories of worth.

Mannix is also tasked with fixing the production of “Hail, Caesar!,” Capitol’s big spectacle movie starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, playing his fourth idiot for the Coens). It’s a biblical epic that quotes shots directly from Ben-Hur and is destined to win 11 Academy Awards if it ever finishes production, since it is very far off schedule. Things take a turn when Whitlock is kidnapped from the set by a group of radical communist writers known only as “The Future,” and Mannix is then told that if he wants the star back he’d have to pay up.

Hail, Caesar! makes this thread out to be the center of attention for the picture, and in its own very special way, it is. However, the movie treats it as part of an already long laundry list of things that Mannix has to deal with, and he almost consciously avoids it throughout most of the film’s running time. It is for this reason that Hail, Caesar! is Joel and Ethan Coen’s least audience friendly movie, taking the nonchalant, “what did we learn?” attitude of Burn After Reading and making a finer film out of it. It is more concerned with moments and scenes, taking delightful detours and very silently building its plot as indirectly as possible. Even when we get to the payoff, the film quite literally deflates everything it worked towards in one of the film’s funniest jokes. It rejects any notion of A-to-Z structure and organization. It then ties itself together in a way that only the Coen Brothers can do it.

Those detours are what make the film so charming and inventive. It plays like a who’s who from Hollywood’s golden age, where you’ll say things like, “look, that’s On the Town (or Anchors Aweigh?)” and, “Is that John Ford directing Ricky Nelson?” or, “That’s the third Gone with the Wind joke I’ve heard this whole movie.” There are references to Busby Berkeley’s extravagant dance sequences; a scene within a stuffy costume drama; a great gag where an editor burns a reel of film with her cigarette and gets her scarf caught in a movieola while editing; and in the highlight of the film’s many detours, a phenomenally inventive dance sequence with Channing Tatum. It’s the type of great scene where I hope anyone watching the film would say, “I’d like to watch more musicals if they make me smile like this.” There’s a movie going on within this movie but it functions more as a tour of movies, and it feels like you’re watching five other films at once, all offering as much pure invention as the last.

It should also be noted that this is the Coen Brothers’ most humanist film. In all of their filmography, from Raising Arizona to The Big Lebowski, from Fargo to No Country for Old Men, each of their protagonists have been dragged through the mud and kicked in the stomach afterwards. Here, the protagonist makes a very spiritual, though perhaps too inevitable, journey into a realization about what happiness is and how to achieve it through the course of his life. Part of this spirituality also comes from what it says about the importance of filmmaking; much like Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, it says some of the most ennobling things about dreaming, making movies, and art in general.

The film should come with a warning, however. If you feel that the plot should dictate the course of a film, or if none of the names above are familiar to you, then the movie will not be for you, period.

The Coens make everything seem effortless, which is one of the many better qualities about this film. Even in a light comedy they stage emotionally devastating scenes with wit and a deep understanding for their characters. Barring Inside Llewyn Davis, this ranks as my favorite film from the writing/directing/editing/producing duo. Leave it to the Coens to make a big screen spectacle about nothing, and not win any Oscars for it.


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